With New Science Standards Draft Out, Early Impressions Roll In

By Erik W. Robelen — January 11, 2013 8 min read
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With a second and final draft of common science standards issued on Tuesday, this is a critical time as the writers come into the home stretch. I have not gathered a lot of feedback yet from the field, mainly because several experts I contacted said they needed more time to digest the latest iteration. After all, this is a large and complicated document (and includes 11 appendices).

Earlier this week, we published an overview of the new draft of the Next Generation Science Standards. And the main theme of that story was change, lots of change, I was told, from the first public draft issued in May. The organizers say they received comment from more than 10,000 individuals and organizations.

A helpful resource to quickly digest the scope of change is Appendix B, an eight-page summary that highlights the main strands of feedback since May and key changes, organizing critiques into 10 themes. They include concern that there was too much material covered, suggestions for inclusion of still more topics, a perceived lack of clarity in the performance expectations, and complaints about a lack of specificity in making connections to standards in other subjects.

The most consistent comment I’ve heard so far is some disappointment that the public only has three weeks to provide comment. This is especially challenging for those organizations trying to bring a variety of voices into a coherent response.

Below, I’ll share some of the early feedback I’ve received. Before I do, just a reminder about authorship. He’s a more detailed primer on who is writing the science standards, but the short version is that 26 “lead state partners” are working with a variety of experts in science and education, and are being guided by a framework developed by a National Research Council committee.

Fidelity to NRC Framework

I spoke yesterday with Helen Quinn, who chaired that NRC panel and is a professor emeritus of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. Quinn cautioned that she needed for time to give a more thorough review, but her preliminary impression was generally positive.

“My impression is that they’ve tightened it a lot since the previous draft,” said Quinn. “I like the direction it’s moved. It’s really been built off the framework.”

Quinn said that one concern she had with the first draft was the dimension that explicitly identified “cross-cutting concepts” in science. (Basically, for each standard, there are performance expectations, followed by a set of “foundation” boxes that expand on and explain those expectations in relation to three dimensions: cross-cutting concept statements; science and engineering practices; and disciplinary core ideas.)

“In the first draft, the idea of cross-cutting concepts was kind of stuffed in there,” she said. “And they’ve done quite a bit of work to improve that and to make clearer what is intended.”

Asked about the rigor of the standards, Quinn said they are indeed challenging. “It’s very hard to look at these standards and say you’re lowering the bar. They’re very demanding. The fact that they don’t teach the Periodic Table in the 4th grade doesn’t mean they’re lowering the bar.”

But she argued that the real power of the standards comes in the merging of content knowledge with scientific practices and investigation skills. “Yes, of course, there is knowledge students need, but emphasizing knowing detailed facts as the outcome of learning is out of place in the modern world where access to knowledge is easy. ... Access to understanding is not easy. What you need is a context in which to put your facts, to apply that knowledge and use it in context.”

Big Lift Ahead on Professional Development

I also spoke with Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, the director of teacher education programs at the American Physical Society, a nonprofit organization for physicists in academia, business, and at national laboratories. Although he said he had not yet read the document closely enough to comment on the changes from the first round, he made one key observation based on the physics-related content that will be expected of teachers.

“The amount of physics content expected of elementary and middle school teachers to teach is quite a bit,” he told me. “I haven’t seen anything in my quick reading that shows any less material.”

“So we see an awful lot of professional development necessary to really fully implement these standards for teachers, and probably changes to preparation. Otherwise, we’ll be asking people to do something they’re not prepared to do, and that’s not fair to the teachers and not fair to their students.”

As we talked, he turned quickly to a 1st grade standard, Waves: Light and Sound. The third of five performance expectations says: “Record and communicate observations that some very hot objects give off their own light.” The next one says: “Conduct an investigation to provide evidence that vibrating matter creates sound and that sound can cause matter to vibrate.”

Blickenstaff explained: “On the surface, those sound really easy to do, but to have the teacher do something that is meaningful for students, not simply following a recipe, the teacher needs to understand some fundamental physical-science principles. ... As soon as a student asks a question that isn’t there in the manual, I worry about how well the teacher is prepared to [address] it.”

Blickenstaff said he helped to organize a response to the first draft from the American Physical Society that brought together experts in physics and physics education. While they did share a number of concerns with the first draft, on the issue of content coverage he said: “We did not have any specific topics that we thought were glaringly absent.”

To be clear, you’re likely to find few people who believe the professional-development challenge of the science standards is not a big one. Indeed, in my story I quote both Stephen Pruitt from Achieve (he’s overseeing the standards-development process) and Peter McLaren, a standards writer and president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, saying as much. Also, the National Science Teachers Association emphasized the same point in its statement on the new draft.

Engineering in the Standards

Meanwhile, on how the standards handle engineering, I’ll include some quick reaction from Elizabeth Parry at North Carolina State University. Parry is the university’s coordinator of K-20 STEM partnership development and also the chairwoman of the K-12 and precollege division of the American Society for Engineering Education. She apparently had some deep concerns with the first draft, but was more upbeat this time.

“My first reaction is pretty positive,” she wrote in an email, highlighting in particular Appendix F and Appendix I, which both concern engineering. “It seems the writers and Achieve really heard and considered the feedback from the engineering education community, and these two engineering-focused parts reflect that.”

She said: “The distinctions and interdependence of science, engineering, and technology discussed in Appendix I are much clearer in my opinion. The additional detail in Appendix F when discussing the cross-cutting practices are more realistic in terms of higher expectations in lower grades. ... And finally, engineering habits of mind including systems thinking, ethics, collaboration, and communication, as well as other hallmarks of engineering design such as trade-offs and optimization, iteration, and a hint of the need for students to be allowed to experience failure and then have the opportunity to improve, are more specific in this draft.”

College and Career Readiness

Susan Singer, a biology professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who also is a member of the state team for Minnesota (a lead state partner), highlighted to me the new appendix in the latest draft that seeks to define college and career readiness in science.

“Many people in K-12 still have a conception that the best way to get kids ready for college is to have them sit still and listen to lectures,” she told me. But Singer said a core driver behind the new standards is to move past that mindset. The draft appendix notes that a “transformation in college science education is underway, informed by how students learn.” And it makes the case that this shift needs to be reflected at the K-12 level.

"[W]hat is taught will be much more than content,” the draft appendix says. “College science and engineering education will tend toward disciplinary intersections, focus on core concepts, and integrate practices into instruction. The [Next Generation Science Standards] will prepare students for this college of tomorrow.”

With regard to the standards, Singer said she’s encouraged by their evolution since the first draft. “I’m really excited. My take-home lesson is it’s really at this point become a community-built document, and the input from the community has made it stronger and better. It’s more focused, eliminating some performance expectations, and staying true to focus on what’s really core.”

Will New Standards Change Instruction?

Finally, I got an email from Eric Bluh, a physics teacher at Ballard High School in Seattle, who offered a skeptical take on the standards more broadly.

“Call me a skeptic, but we’ve had ‘standards’ in science teaching for more than 15 years,” wrote Bluh. “We had years where it was the sole focus of professional development. So what? Did they make a big change? ... Have they made much difference INSIDE the classroom? Not really. So I am underwhelmed.”

I’ll be returning in coming days with more analysis and feedback on the standards, but this at least starts to give a flavor for reaction from the field.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.